Nepali Times
We had everything before us


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.
-Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

The celebrated English novelist Charles Dickens' observation on Revolutionary France some 225 years ago can easily be applied to present-day Nepal. Especially in the context of the euphoria following the "Revolution of 1951", popularly known as the "Sat Salko Kranti", and the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) of 1990.

These two events in recent Nepali history have had epochal consequences. They fired the popular imagination and gave rise to tremendous expectations. Despite being separated by almost half a century, the impact of these events on society and politics have been strikingly similar. 1951 ushered in democracy for the first time in Nepali history by toppling the 104-year-old Rana oligarchy, and catapulted an isolated country out of its medieval slumber into the modern world. 1990 brought down the undemo-cratic Panchayat system which King Mahendra had put in place after staging the coup d'etat against the 18-month-old popularly - elected government led by BP Koirala.

The success of both the 1951 and the 1990 movements set the stage for unprecedented transition, transformation and experimentation in Nepali politics. But an objective assessment of their consequences shows that the lofty missions they extolled and the high expectations they fostered remain as distant and unfulfilled as ever. No statesman of vision, integrity and commitment has emerged to fulfil them. A failure to meet the people's minimum expectations can quickly change the popular mood from hope and optimism that accompanied the euphoria of change to disappointment and frustration, to cynicism, and then to anger and rebellion.

The genesis of the Maoist 'People's War', which celebrated its fifth anniversary a few days ago, can largely be attributed to the callous neglect of successive governments to their own commitments, compounded by a vulgar and megalomaniacal obsession with power and wealth among politicians who came to power after 1990.

The roots of the more general problems that bedevil our democratic system today, like endemic political instability, bad governance and corruption, can, however, be easily traced back to the period following the change in 1951. But we have learnt precious few lessons from our half-century-long efforts at governance to tackle them. In fact, we are actively repeating the same old mistakes. The intriguing question really is: why have we failed to find solutions to familiar old problems with some of the stalwarts of the past, like Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Girija Prasad Koirala (and until very recently the late Ganesh Man Singh and Manmohan Adhikari) still around? Nepalis had expected these leaders them to put their long experience, sacrifice and commitment to good use. Why did they fail?

Despite superficial transfor-mation and modernisation, Nepal's political idiom has not changed in the last 50 years. There have been no conscious and collective attempts to transform a political culture and value system characterised by authoritarianism, patron-client dependency and patriarchal relationships. Not even radical-sounding communist leaders or their political parties have ventured out that far.

Other features that have remained unchanged since 1951 are:
. The habit of politicians to go for untimely and counter-productive compromises and agreement with the status quo, jettisoning the original goals and objectives of their movement. The Delhi compromise in 1951, and the Tanakpur and Mahakali treaties in the 1990s are cases in point.
. The unwillingness of politicians to bring plunderers of national wealth or human rights violators to justice, thereby encouraging a pervasive culture of corruption and impunity in administration and government. For instance, the exoneration of the Ranas by Nepali Congress leaders in 1951 against allegations of "national loot", and the refusal of successive governments after 1990 to implement the recommendations of the Mallik Commission on human rights abuse during the 1990 movement.
. The wild scramble for power and unending internecine power struggles among politicians and political parties without the slightest regard for values, ethics and norms.
We elect with our valuable ballots whenever we are called upon to do so. But since democracy cannot function successfully without efficient, honest and committed political parties and politicians, it is time for us to remind them of the historical challenges and opportunities confronting them. We can't always start from ground zero. We have to move from 50 years of transition and apprenticeship to serious consolidation. It is time to start building a viable, sustainable and efficient democracy that can finally give the long-suffering Nepali people a more decent life.

Kapil Shrestha is Professor of Political Science at Tribhuvan University and a member of the National Human Rights Commission.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)